Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Sunrise, sunset


I watched the sun set yesterday.
I watched the sun rise again this morning.

I don't do this often enough, few of us do.

Just a few minutes after the sun broke through this morning, a twitchy squirrel sat on top of a fence post, still, facing the sun, then resumed his twitchiness.

A vulture flew within 20 feet of me, its under feathers reflecting the sunlight as it banked.

I just watched.
It would have happened anyway.
And it's happening anyway.



And it will keep on happening....

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Biology only matters if life does....


I suppose it's a bit much to ask students to ponder their closeness to plants in a culture where human tribes can barely recognize their similarities with other tribes. Things have broken down.

But I am going to ask you, gentle reader.
  • We share the same genetic code--we can make their stuff, they can make ours.
  • We both reproduce sexually in a spectacular dance of the chromosomes, mixing us up every generation, so that even the perfect among us are so for only a generation.
  • We both rely on ribosomes to build our proteins, microtubules and mitochondria to get us through the day, and an innate will to do whatever we need to see the next sunrise.
Humans and basil share a common ancestor. We share a quarter of the same genes. Many of our proteins do exactly the same thing, others not so much.

But we're pretty damn close at the most basic levels of life. Which is pretty cool.

We're even closer to insects--heck, we're both even animals! We share about 60% of our core genes with fruit flies. 

If something effectively kills plants or insects, and you see no connections between plants and insects and humans, then you likely do not contemplate the tons and tons and tons of herbicides and pesticides poured on our food in our "war" against weeds and weevils.



If you don't contemplate about food or water or folks in your neighborhood, it's unlikely you contemplate much about anything that matters.




Hey, what's on TV tonight?


Friday, December 26, 2014

Just a stone's throw away

In the span of less than a week, I managed to land in a cardiac unit and lose a friend.
It is one thing to write of mortality, quite another to kiss its cheek.
I am in the land of the fine again, but we all are dancing in the same shadow.


Flatiron Building, 1902, Library of Congress

A St. Stephen's Day Story


My great grandfather was a bricklayer at a time when New York City, just a sail away, was laying a lot of bricks. He'd come to the States, ply his trade, then return to the island.

In New York City there are many magnificent buildings erected on the backs of those who traveled from home, because they had to, and I am sure many families in the area claim a particular building (or two) as their own.

To whom does a garden belong? The gardener who digs into the rich bed of life, or the rich man who pays for his gardener's services? And so it is with the Flatiron Building in New York City. It is as much ours as anyone with a legal claim to the deed.

I can only imagine the thoughts running through a man far younger than myself as he tumbled several stories to the street below in a city far from his home. I can only imagine the pain and fear as he was carted off to a hospital, at a time when no one expected a man to survive a fall like that.

I do not have to imagine, though, that he prayed.
I have little doubt that in his prayers, after, of course Jesus and Mary, he prayed to St. Stephen.
Stoning of St. Stephen, Paolo Uccello, 1435

St. Stephen was stoned to death for a few reasons, but clearly he agitated those in power with his belief that  "the most High dwells not in temples made with hands." He is the patron saint of bricklayers, which would be ironic in most cultures.

So today is a good reminder to me to remember a few things that matter:
  • We are here by the tenuous thread we call the Grace of God.
  • Though our individual threads will break, we are all part of a larger, living tapestry.
  • Spills, even bad ones, can end well.
  • We revere the temples of learning at our peril.



I am the same man;
I will not be the same teacher.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Teacher preacher


I have been wrestling with teaching kids "science" now for years, and it comes down to this:
If a child has no real connection to the natural world, all I can do is preach.
And preaching does not work.

We got plenty of preachers telling all of us what to think believe.
And most of us are devout believers in things we hardly recognize as dogma.

Turn the sound of your television.
Watch the images stream by.
They define us--if they did not, we would not watch them.


Any child with a true interest in the world of the senses, the world of touch and taste, sound and smell and sight, the world that (for whatever reason) flows within patterns of the physical and physics, well, that child has a chance in developing interest in the only real world we have.

A child who  learns to manipulate symbols for extrinsic gain--first to please her parents, then to make a living--can become a proficient scientist without knowing the world. We have plenty of professional preachers who have little connection to The Christ.

If you can't find the ground beneath your feet, you are lost.




(Doesn't mean she will become a scientist--
no one has an obligation to professionalize wherever joy takes them. But she will be a better citizen.)

A pill bug prayer

Less than a mile away, in the gray shadows of a closed classroom, a pill bug wanders around some compost, feeling relief as it moistens it gills. It stumbles onto a fellow pill bug, exchanges greetings with a brief twitching of touching antennae, then ambles over to a piece of potato.

Wild pill bug, loitering on a North Cape May driveway.

It sees light we know exists, but no human will see today.
It knows sound we know exists, as an old analog clock ticks a few feet away.
It knows of existence, and the existence of others like it.

Christmas means nothing, of course, to a critter no bigger than a wheat berry.
But living does.

The light is returning.
Amen.


There is joy and wisdom in silence and darkness.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

I am a racist

I come from an unusual school in an unusual district. We are not a white or a black or a Latino school. We are not Muslim or Jewish or Christian or Hindu or Sikh. We hear Bengali, Spanish, Greek, English, Patois, and maybe another couple dozen languages and dialects in our hallways.

Crispus Attucks, first death in American Revolution
via Crispus Attucks Museum website

I'm not going to ruin all this by claiming a Kumbaya moment, but what makes this building work maybe better than most others is the constant infusion of immigrants into our town, an infusion of confusion, that keeps us all wondering who we are.

I've heard several times a different version of that discussion, as a small group of kids will discuss just which banner they fall under.

And that's a good place to start.
***

The other race conversation is the one acknowledging the price of color in this fine land of ours. The problem is not starting "the conversation" about race. Most kind, nice folks I know are eager, too eager, to start the conversation.

The problem is getting past the niceties, the politeness, the veneer of civility that subtly reflects our standing with each other.

The problem with the hard conversation is that most white folks I know truly believe two things:
  • They're not racist.
  • If they're not racist, then this does not involve them.
This skirts the whole issue of privilege, neatly tidied up in a universal statement of our humanity, and who could possibly argue with the idea that an unbiased, nice person who just wants everybody to get along had nothing to do with, well, John Crawford? 


Here's a place to start. You're not going to get off the bottle until you acknowledge you're a racist. Not a John Birch Society heavy drinking racist, just the social two cocktail kind. The kind who sits on the sidelines tsk tsking away a world that does not concern you.

But it should.
Make the declaration, then let's try having the talk. 



And if it does not, you are in deeper than you think.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

People in the neighborhood

I'm fine now, for now.
Most of us are, for now.
I was not so fine 36 hours ago.
Good to be reminded what matters.


I was treated at our local hospital Clara Maass, and I was treated well.
The people who took care of me played in our local Little League back when I was coaching, had kids in our high school, knew friends of my wife--these are the people in our neighborhood.


So while I appreciated the efficiency and technology of a local hospital humming like a well-run machine, it was not the machine that made it a place of healing.

It is, and always will be, the people that matter.





Bet that matters in the classroom, too.




Sunday, December 14, 2014

Undeniable: Bill Nye is wrong



The Science Guy, via CNN
Unicorns and leprechauns are not real.
Double-wattled cassowaries are.

Bill Nye blames an easy target:
Nye (rightly) rails against money from the Creationism camp used to taint biology ed, but then adds "the concern is raising a generation of children who 'can't think.'"

Cassowary adult, by Victor Burolla, via CC

Fundamentalists are not killing the minds of our children. Our disconnect from what's real is.

Fundamentalism is a sadly predictable result of a people who have as much to gain by paying attention to the dope on screens as they do to the dope proselytizing in a classroom. If you think you can reduce evolution to a two minute discussion using Emojis and cute music, you're just adding to the noise.

If I tell a child that unicorns and leprechauns are imaginary, and double wattle cassowaries are "real," and can do no better than provide a projected image on a classroom screen as I pontificate the difference between what's real and what's not, well, who's the idiot?

Children would question just about everything we teach (at least the way we teach now) if children had something, anything, to center themselves.

Start with the local, with a bug or a plant or a bird or anything real that exists outside a screen. Until that local reality becomes more real than the stream of images and sounds we feed our children, we get the culture we deserve.

I bet I could convince a child that Mr. Nye is a robot.




His overall point is valid--kids need to be able to question things, to think, to be skeptical, in order to learn about nature.




Saturday, December 6, 2014

We're too damned polite

Well, I suppose if we're not bold enough to correct a teacher for saying Columbus discovered that the world is round, that plants turn sunlight into food, that gravity does not exist on the moon, and that Dr. King was all about peace and love, then we're not likely to say anything about her (not so) subtle racism.


We get the students that we deserve.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Technology bytes children

The United States Department of Education is pushing its latest public relations campaign, Future Ready, urging superintendents to sign a pledge to plunge into the digital age.

The pledge itself is a syntactical nightmare, a porridge of buzz words and jargon slapped together to render the pledge almost as meaningless as the one public school kids make each morning. (Before folks get their knickers all bunched up, I'm referring to the 2341st time a child makes the pledge--once should be enough for any pledge.)

Still, the pledge will make the plutocrats among us happy, and it's about as binding and effective as Ford's Whip Inflation Now campaign back in the 70's, my first exposure to just how searingly bad government flacks can be.

I'd love to debate the merits of these kinds of programs, but there's a more basic discussion that needs to happen first. Do the benefits of personal digital technology outweigh the harm done to small children?

Let's be clear up front on a few things:
  • Screen time affects children in ways that potentially have detrimental lifetime effects.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under two, and limited entertainment screen time (1 to 2 hours per day) for older children, and no "screen media" in a child's bedroom.
  • The "there's no stopping the Juggernaut/the cat's out of the bag" school of thought may assuage parental guilt, but avoids the central issue here. 
  • A class set of iPads does little to ameliorate the factors that have the biggest effect on school performance: poverty and racism.
from DVCE
When we genuflect before the altar of technology, thankful for the dopamine surges that fuel our midnight Facebook forays, we lose more than just sleep.

And now the state is telling our schools to sacrifice our children's time to the same god, to better prepare them for careers, and again we line the pockets of those who are selling snake oil, toxic to children.

Yes, this is a diatribe.

You want your child playing with an iPad at 6 months, that's your problem.
You want our children playing with digital media in public school before they need to shave?
That's our problem.



No, I am not a Luddite--you read this here first, no?






Saturday, November 29, 2014

Elementary science

Here are the questions any elementary school teacher should be able to answer: None of us should be so specialized that we can laugh off our ignorance in the basic tenets of life, culture, language, and mathematics.
  • When we lose weight, where does most of it go? 
  • Why do we need oxygen?
  • Why do things fall down?
  • Why doesn't the sun burn up?
  • Why does it get cold in the winter?

These are not the right answers:
  • Poop.
  • To live (doesn't answer the question).
  • "Gravity" doesn't answer the question--you may as well say vishquishnosity.
  • Because it's really big.
  • Because we're farther awa from the sun.
The world's a wonderfully strange place, a place where trees take our breath and spin it into sugar, and we take the sugar and break it back down back into water and CO2, where all things made of stuff are attracted to all other things made of stuff, fueled by nuclear reactions in a local star unfathomably far away yet closer than the unfathomably large number of other stars that exist.



Losing our religion

Somewhere on a back bay in Jersey

Went clamming this morning--chilly dawn, quarter moon, and tame tide meant I may have burned as many calories as I raked up for dinner. 

But that's not why I clam.

After a week under fluorescent lights hearing folks reveal what they know to be true, I need to feel the back bay wash my over my feet to remind me what's real, to feel my fingers become clumsy as a toddler's as they grope into the mud to pull out another clam, to feel the human world of words dissolve in the chatter of geese and gulls.

If you do not know what's real, if your feet never (literally) touch the earth, then you will believe anything. And most of us do.
***

If you grew up in the States anywhere but a farm, chances are pretty good you learned of natural cycles through your church. While our dominant culture thrives on linear growth, most religions honor the cycles of life and death.



Science is the closest thing we have to true religion in public school these days, technology the furthest. Science seeks the mystery, technology exploits it. Very little science happens in schools.  
***
We're in the dark days now, and will be for some time. 
The dying sunlight reminds us, if we care to see, that all things fall apart.
The sun has shifted, the shadows have lengthened, the cold darkness creeps in.


Delaware Bay in winter, North Cape May

If your child spends most of her waking hours either in school or in front of a screen, she will learn to live in a world without tides, without death, without the slow grace of our sun. She (like so many others) will fail to discern the natural world, the one we're all tied to, from any of the multiple artificial universes available to her.

Of all the Commandments, the wisest may be the first:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.
What we see and smell gets down to molecules, which get down to mass/energy, which gets down to the unknowable. Science requires a basic faith in logic, in math, in entropy, in our senses, and ultimately a humbling recognition of our place in the universe. Science promises death.

School and the economy it now serves requires a disconnect from the natural world and ultimately a basic faith in what somebody else tells you. Our culture promises immortality.

Horseshoe crab spine, North Cape May

I'm going with death.




There are no standards or Commandments on a mudflat.










Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fireball

We were in Asbury Park Friday night, and drove past the Silver Ball Museum.
Reason enough to re-post....


A long, long time ago, before most of you were even born (ca. 1976), pinball machines were still electromechanical, tied to the Newtonian universe. Real bells clanged, real thwack sounds when a game was won. Adolescent reflexes allowed mastering a game well enough to dominate a machine (and sell the accumulated games for more than the quarter it cost to play).

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Pinball/Fireball

We played at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, on the Jersey shore. We fell in love with each other, ourselves, and the ocean. Play the silver ball, sell a few games, wander waist deep into the creamy night waves, kissing whoever wandered in with you.

Now and again, you entered the zone. Thwack, thwack, thwack! The game counter grew, the crowd swelled, and you were oblivious, except for the occasional glance at the woman you loved, and would eventually marry. (No matter what I do now--succor the afflicted, sit on the Supreme Court, take a bullet for humanity--I cannot glean the same gaze from the love of my life.)


We knew we were at some kind of cusp. In 1972, Prozac, the compact disc, and Pong were developed, harbingers of the digital revolution. Amidst this rising ugliness, Ted Zale (designer) and Dave Christensen (artist) created Fireball, the masterpiece of the electromechanical pinball. Bally praised its "lightning storm of scoring action," while Playboy hailed it as "the perfect pin."

 As the Human Torch threw bolts of lightning from the backglass, Odin and Wotan captured balls, allowing for multiball play. The bumpers kicked hard enough to keep play on the razor edge of control when in the zone. These features alone made this pin worth the two bits for 5 balls.


This was the 70's; we lost a war, our Federal government lost credibility, and we feared a nuclear winter. Oil was in short supply. We needed more than a good pin. Ted Zale knew this.


If you played well, a magical transformation took place. The lower flippers ("zipper flippers") came together, closing the gaping mouth at the bottom of the machine. A left side kicker grooved on, kicking back any errant ball slipping through the left gutter. For a moment you believed you had complete control.

Just as your shoulders started to relax, when you allowed yourself the myth that you were the master of Fireball, the whole center of the board started to spin rapidly; chaos reigned in the middle of your silver universe. You could just hold on and enjoy the ride as the ball clacked off the bumpers, got caught in the swirling center, and was hurled back at the bumpers. Like Job, you stood in awe of the chaos could not understand, much less control.

In a moment, the machine stopped playing with your helplessness. The wheel stopped spinning, the zipper flippers parted open, your ball was again at your mercy. Still, you knew better. Life could not be contained within the glass box.




No matter how glorious the box.....

Stroking our global economy through miseducation


Might want to read this after you eat the bird.

Cecil, H. C. and M. R. Baks
"Volume, sperm concentration, and fertilizing capacity of turkey ejaculates obtained from successive cloacal strokes during semen collection,"
Poult. Sci 64:12191222.

Turkey
"My Daddy did what?" [photo: Peter Griffin]
 
In just a few days, many of us will sit down in front of a perfectly browned turkey, so oddly shaped that its conception depended on someone stroking its father's genitalia.

With all the nonsense spewed about technology, and efficiency, and how to educate our way to some economic Nirvana, we lose sight of a few simple truths:

  • All economic value ultimately comes down to just a few absolutes--what you eat, what you wear, how you stay warm, and who will take care of you when you falter, as we all will, sooner or later. 
  • Their methods of delivery matter, too--from tractors to ambulances, we've forgotten how to carry each other--but cultures before us managed to carry out the essential stuff without a drop of motor oil.
  • Economics is a zero sum game--thankfully we have been blessed with abundant sunlight and soil, so there's plenty to share. We just don't want to.
  • At market's close on Friday, hard red winter wheat, the kind great for making your own bread, ran $6.94 per bushel, under 12 cents a pound. Food is ridiculously cheap in the US. There's a reason for that.
Most of what we buy, we do not need. Much of what we need, we need not buy. You can go through 15 years of American public schooling, pre-K through high school, and miss this. I have seniors who cannot recognize wheat berries clamoring to major in business next year. This disconnect is not accidental.

Follow the money in our culture, and you will see what we value.

Wealth is not a result of strokes of genius, nor mere strokes of luck. It comes down to the brutal cloacal strokes of a poorly paid American we'd rather not know.




Happy Thanksgiving!A true economy does not grow--it cycles.











Monday, November 17, 2014

Mid-November

I have a broken oak tree branch attached to the wall, right next to the whiteboard. The leaves are still green, and will remain so. The leaves have not fallen, and will not. Next to it I have a mini-poster asking when the leaves will fall.

I found a slug crawling in our sunny school hallway, looking for all the world like it had a place to go, and in a hurry (for a slug) at that. He (and she) is now living with the potato bugs, where he (and she) will spend a comfortable winter before returning to the garden behind the school.


We saw dolphins just a few yards off the beach a couple of days ago. Not sure the noticed us, not sure they would care if they did.

A dead green bird lay on our stoop Saturday morning. Not sure what it was, and not sure it matters. It no longer matters to the bird. It was likely on its way to South America, munching on bees and wasps along the way.

On Sunday, we took a walk along the edge of the sea. Beach flies served as scouts. A sand piper had one good leg, the other one broken. It twirled like a baton every time the critter hopped along the edge of the sea.


And yet I talk of diffusion in class, despite the dead, the dying, and the departing that marks mid-November.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mary Beth Doyle

10 years today
Some things you do not recover from....



Today marks the anniversary of my sister's death, when a self-described Christian missionary ran her off the road, left the scene, then wrote to me (after being apprehended by the police a day later), that this was God's will.

Apparently some modern day apostles have the power to know these things.

I'm not an apostle, and I'm hardly a fan of what passes for Christianity these days (not sure Jesus Himself would be welcome at some of His more popular franchises), but I do enjoy the Gospels, which are at least as wise as, say Who Moved My Cheese, though actually practicing any of that ol' time kindness (in its finest sense of the word) would get you kicked off most corporate boards.

I take my solace from knowing what's left of her is in our hearts and in the now leafless limbs of some apple trees in Tipton, Michigan, her ashes overlooking Irish Hills.


Here is a story about her, told by a friend of hers, and I'm stealing it verbatim:

Twenty years ago today, Mary Beth and I arrived in the fabled Hunza Valley, the model for Shangri-La, in northern Pakistan. We stayed in a town on a cliff 4,000 feet above the valley floor, in a hotel that cost about 5 bucks with a view of 4-mile-tall Himalayan peaks. The poplars lining irrigation canals – brimming with pearly and opalescent glacier runoff, feeding stone terraces of apricot wheat, mulberry, grapes – had just come to full flame. An orange and yellow hearth fire lapping at the feet of the mountains 18,000 feet high, capped in blue glaciers.The altitude started getting to me. So, Mary Beth took a walk.

A few hours later, she came back, her fancy scarf from the Sindh – the one with real silver threads, presented to her by relatives of the mayor of the town of Khaipur – traded in for one of the rough cotton veils Hunza women wear working their terraced fields.

“I traded my scarf! And got some presents!!” She was carrying a huge bunch of grapes and a loaf of bread that smelled like a fire place and was so dense, huge, and nutritious it took us a week to finish off.

“I met some farmers! Check it out!” She’d spent the afternoon in the compound of a Hunza family, a rare privilege. “They all thought I was insane once I got them to understand I wasn’t lost. Kept asking ‘where’s your husband? (in this medieval world, it was just easier, and more sensible, to claim we were married)
Why did he let you come here alone?’ How the fuck am I supposed to explain I’m the one who dragged my ‘husband’ to Pakistan.” (Coming here was Mary Beth’s idea. That’s another story.)

She was glowing from the encounter. Not a lot of people are served tea in the kitchens of Hunzakot matriarchs. Not a lot of people are like Mary Beth. Travel is like being a rock star in that to succeed,
it takes a certain talent – the kind Mary Beth possessed in spades, wheel barrows, truck loads full.

Later, we shared this experience: that evening, Hunza was celebrating an Ismaili Muslim festival. After sundown, people scaled the surrounding mountains and set bonfires. As the peaks faded into the night, the whole valley – dozens of miles long, and thousands of feet deep – came alive with bonfires. The sight left even MB speechless. Unforgettable stuff like this made Pakistan her favorite location of the whole year we spent in Asia.
I'm going fishing in a moment, but it's not fish I'm looking for.
I miss you, Mary Beth.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Artificial intelligence


I may need to start a school on the mudflats, or rather
share the school that's been there before we ever showed up on its shores.


With all the fuss over the Next Generation Science Standards (whose biggest fault may be the ridiculously Trekian sounding "Next Generation"), our real problem stems from our cultural confusion over what is real.


If you expect a two year old to distinguish the natural world from an iPad screen in a culture where millions of Americans will wile away a lovely Autumn afternoon screaming at images on television, you are fooling yourself (your business) and harming the toddler (my business).

Every child should:
  • Plant a seed and watch it grow from nothing before hearing the word chloroplast.
  • Watch the tide roll in, and then out again, before using the gravitational constant.
  • Play with a magnifying glass before using a microscope, an abacus before a calculator. 
  • Know what a wheat berry feels, grind it into flour, and make a loaf of bread before taming her taste buds on Thomas' English muffins. 

 Add your own ideas to the list--before you teach a "science" lesson, ask yourself if a child has had a reasonable chance to connect to piece of the natural world you are about to share. Take each and every standard and run it through this test.

If you cannot connect it to something real, abandon the lesson and take a recess. Outside. Toss away your phones, your screens, your fluorescent lights, your earbuds, your books, your markers, your words, your voice. 

Sit under the sky, quietly, and listen. 

A child born in our culture today has little chance of discerning what's real from what's not. 
I'd say the same is true of most adults today. 


We are all part of something bigger than the "limitless" technologies conceived by those around us who grew up feasting on the artificial images of the generation before them.

 The most valuable thing I have to "sell" to my lambs is the happy old man standing in front of them babbling joyfully on about the world that belongs to all of us, and in between the noise I make about mitochondria and cell cycles, we pass around sea shells and plant beans.



Just read parts of the NGSS again, and realize it's just not going to help.
I'm waiting for the standard that says "Give a child a rock, and spend the next few months knowing what makes a rock a rock."



Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A letter to my AP Biology students

A letter for my AP Biology students today for their contract signing ceremony:

Prayer
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
Galway Kinnell

 

Galway Kinnell is my favorite poet. Mr. Kinnell died last week. We met a few times, even shared a meal once, but I doubt he remembered me, and that does not matter, his words still profoundly shaped who I became in college and who I am today. With his death a door closed. I last saw Galway two years ago. I will never see him again. I miss him.

Senior year in high school is scary. Most of you do not know where you will be this time next year. Most of you are seeing doors close for the first time in your lives. Rejection is hard. Failure is hard.

Many, perhaps most of you, have too little time to do the things you want to do. I am not talking about playing video games or watching Scandal or rooting for hopelessly inept NY football teams. I am talking about the kinds of things you (and me) live for.

AP Biology takes time, a lot of time. If science is not your passion, AP Biology takes too much time.

I trust that those of you who are truly interested in science will chase hypotheses down the darkest alleys, and learn to love statistics and data and natural truths as much as I love quahogs and pesto. You do not need a contract.

Many of you are taking this course because you thought (for a variety of reasons) you needed to take this course, and you signed the contract because you were told to sign the contract.

If you are taking AP Biology because someone told you to take it, I pray that Kinnell’s prayer above will help guide you once you get beyond the traps set in high school, traps that will lie in wait your whole life, stealing time and money and faith. Write a contract about what matters to you, sign it, then put it somewhere safe where you can read it when things roll the wrong way, as they occasionally will.


The good stuff, the true stuff, the immortal stuff, is right there for you, on your path. You cannot map the path ahead of time, but you will see it as it grows. Each moment matters more than the day, each day more than the years.
Make the right, the just, and (I daresay) fun decisions along the way and you will be fine, so long as plants keep trapping light’s energy smush together CO2 and water, because, well, just because….

For the few of you who refused to sign the contract, you’re already a few steps ahead of where I was in high school. Congratulations!

My contract to you is to keep teaching how to take ideas apart and put them back together rationally and coherently, and to remember that as much as I love biology, each of you has your own path, your own dreams, your own life.


This as much for me as it is for them.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

SGOs, Samhain, and sanity

I have spent, in the basest sense of that word, hours upon hours
of my God-given life working on a document required of teachers here in Jersey.
That I do these things speaks to a cultural insanity, and mine as well.




Do ghosts "exist"?

I've lived  long enough to know that they don't.
I've lived long enough to know that they do.

That odd, inexplicable events happen, and happen daily, is evident to anyone paying attention. The shame is that so few of us are paying attention to the natural world, we miss the rhythms and the mysteries that  envelop our modern minds every moment.


Today is All Saints Day, to celebrate the sanctified among us, as though following some moral order could save us from the coming dark, a world in which wasp larvae eat hornworms alive, from the inside out, and humans die monstrous deaths lying in ICUs with multiple tubes pierced into the body, hoping that like St. Sebastian, we will miraculously recover.
***

If you need a video to be convinced ghosts exist, you don't truly know what it means to know that the dead are among us.

The question of ghosts is not an idle one. We follow spirits of our own making all the time. We follow rules and rhythms of our own making now, wrapping ourselves in a sad cocoon of  hubris, wiling away our hours fulfilling nothing more than deadlines upon deadlines without a hint of irony.


I'm headed out to a mudflat in an hour or so, under a wet and wild early winter sky, to rake up a few clams, alive as I am, and as alive as I am, I will be as dead as those clams will be tonight in less than a lifetime.




Until you believe in the ghost you will be, you cannot truly live.







Thursday, October 30, 2014

Samhain, again

 An old one, but Samhain is creeping up, and the ancients revered the cycles. I'm creeping towards ancient status.



Despite whatever virus is playing tootsies with my hypothalamus (or maybe because of this), I found myself in thigh deep water on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean at dusk, trying to catch a striped bass. I spent the evening shivering under a blanket.

The waters here are about 62 degrees, still plenty warm for wading. The air temperature wasn't bad, either, and the wind didn't bother me until the sun set. In my feverish napping, I realized that for all my training and prepping and struggling as a science teacher, a student can learn far more about life on the edge of the Hallowe'en sea than she ever will in the classroom.

As the sunlight recedes on Samhain, the dead walk among us.
***

This morning I noticed a drop of water on the shower curtain. Light rays were bent by the drop of water clinging to the curtain, and the threads of the curtain loomed larger than life. At least that's how I perceived it.

If I had not been there to catch the bent rays of light, the light rays still would have been bent for whatever light-sensing creature might pause to look at it, or so I believe. Faith, really.

This past week we have been talking about diffusion in biology class. I started the year off with a mini-history of the universe, talking about two huge articles of faith in science:
  • Whatever rules apply here at this moment apply everywhere in the known universe (given, of course, the same conditions), and
  • Whatever rules apply now (at this given spot) applied throughout the past and will continue to apply in the future.
If we're going to tackle issues of faith in the classroom, may as well tackle them head on. Science requires a special kind of faith.
***

Like the drop of water visible only to me, or the fin of the striped bass cutting through the surf while I stood alone at the beach, most moments only happen once. We see patterns in our moments, and some patterns, particularly those based on the natural world, become predictable. (This borders on tautologous--if a moment defies observable patterns, we toss it out of the science realm.)

The dead among us walk among us. My mother, my father, my sister, my grandparents, and great aunts and uncles and the hundreds, thousands of my clan that preceded me still live in the common spirit our clan shares, carried by me and others, passed to our children.

We ask children to study the complement system in the face of viremia, something none of them will see in a lifetime, yet deny the ghosts they see in the shadows, as real as the refracted light on my shower curtain. I know that the shower curtain threads did not magically enlarge, and I know that ghosts do not lurk in the shadows.

What I know and what I believe, however, do not always mesh. On the edge of the ocean at night, I am afraid. Perhaps without reason.

We try to bend them to a scientific view of the world in a place where science rarely happens, in a classroom, on a forced time schedule, in order to educate them "to a better economy."

We teach models as though they are real. Science is useful, but it is based on models, a special way of looking at the universe, a way that has resulted in all kinds of wonderfulness, but not real.

Or rather, no more real than the shadows lurking under the late October moon, reminding us that we, too, will walk among the dead, no matter how education we have. If I did not believe this I would not fear the night, even though I know better.





Photo by Immanuel Giel, no permission needed

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Paradise Lost: On data driven drivel

I am watching the shadows change 
as I spend hours on the latest conceit from Trenton, SGOs.

This was written last fall--you would think I'd learn to live.

The "pond"

I spent a chilly few minutes yesterday pulling out some elodea from the pond to take to school--each time I pull up a garland, I let it drip a bit over the pond, wondering about the lives of the critters found in each drop.

(I worry about the few drops that hit the ground.)

When I start to think I am losing my mind thinking about these critters, I peek at a drop or two under my microscope, and see, once again, the dance of foreign life doing familiar things.

That's enough data analysis to remind me why I teach.
***

If we're going to preach data-driven instruction, and use it to take us to the Holy Land, we need to agree on whose Holy Land matters. And my Holy Land includes the critters I kill every time I take a step.
The gargoyle guarding the pond.
If you're alive, it's impossible not to see ourselves in the living around us.
If we see ourselves in the living around us, we care more about the world.
The abstract has no meaning when torn from the earth.

Being alive is a big part of being human, though you'd be hard-pressed to see evidence of this in our data-driven world culture.
***

It's late October, the morning glories in the shadows stay open through the day.  The dead will be dancing in the shadows soon. The world freezes over, and our children are taught not to notice.

The morning glory knows.

Good thing, too--if the children could see what we're stealing from them, they'd never sit still long enough to take the PISA's, the HSPAs, the NJASKs, the PARCCs, the SATs, the AP exams..

I'm still naive enough to believe the point of education is to help young'uns find their paths to thoughtful, productive, and happy lives. There's plenty more data to be found at the edge of a pond than under the flicker of fluorescent lamps.

But this data-driven nonsense isn't about accountability, or data, or education at all.
So I will keep teaching and keep praying, both for children and for the critters found in a drop of pond water the children no longer know exist.

The last of the hops flowers



You cannot dance if you're thinking too hard (or at all) about the rhythm.

"This Is Not a Test" Teacher Study Group

During the days of AIDS hysteria, my epic psoriasis  drew some attention at Sandy Hook.
My torso was splattered with dollar coin sized lesions that looked like raw hamburger,
and a couple of kids screamed "He's got AIDS!" 

Like Moses parting the Red Sea, families dragged their beach blanket fiefdoms
away from my clan, giving the four of us a clear path to the ocean's edge.

That is not what racism looks like....


Kids learn early on what to say when. I think they get their best practice in science class, where we teach a catechism, the kids repeat it, and then we leave each other alone until catechism class resumes the next day. What is true in science class (trees are mostly made from air) has nothing to do with their reality (trees are mostly made from dirt).

I'm going off script here.

Justice, occasionally blind, usually white
I do not spend every moment thinking about race, because I do not have to, but I live in a culture where race matters every moment.

I cannot know what it means to lives in a culture of us and them, where our minds see image after image after image that reflect our dominance in culture, even as we mouth the words "color blind" and "love" and "harmony" publicly, with different conversations when the doors are closed.

The closest thing I know to living in a parallel but utterly different world is my mild deafness. The hearing know it's there when I ask one to repeat something he just said, but otherwise, it's not something most folks would notice, yet I'm immersed in it, aware that may be missing part of the world, but unaware what that part may be.


Racism is only superficially similar--both deafness and race hold people in worlds the dominant culture rarely notices--but fairness is never the issue with deafness.

We're starting a teacher study group at Bloomfield High School in the next week or two, a school taught (mostly) by white folks to (mostly) kids of color. We're using Jose Vilson's words This Is Not a Test to help get the conversation started.



I figured I get this conversation started among those of us who need it most.....

Statue photo (Dublin Castle's Gates of Fortitude and Justice) by J.-H. Jan├čen via CC
Three Buddhas image from (and sold by) My Spirit and Success website




Friday, October 17, 2014

Same damn thing



For all the noise technology gets these days, the important stuff is still the same damn thing.
We live because plants spin air into food. You'd be surprised at how many folks old and young, wise and dumb, do not know this. Go find a tree. Look at its base. The ground is raised there. Ask yourself why.

We live because plants split water molecules into pieces, much of which drifts away as oxygen. The stuff keeps us alive, as it has for hundreds of thousands of years, as it will if we do not forget our mortal roots matter more than our god of the generation.

We live because we fuck, we fight, we flee, and we feed. The best ads focus on these, while we focus on the brand of our shoes. Schools have become dens of fashion oppression. If a teacher drones on about the number of carbons in sucrose with the same voice used to describe the number of casualties in WWII, the purple piping on the latest Nikes become utterly fascinating.
And we die.
Most (yes, most) of us have forgotten what matters. 
We confound fear with freedom.



If you teach, teach what matters.
Apple won't matter in a few more decades--but apples still will.